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The Blight Upon Us

Food Project Tomatoes in 2008
Food Project Tomatoes in 2008
I badly wanted to write about something upbeat this week. That was not to be. Our farm, like many in the Northeast, has been hit by late blight, an aggressive disease on tomatoes and potatoes spread through moist air by the water-born mold Phytophthora Infestans. Infected plants can blacken and wither within a week, the fruit of tomatoes develops lesions and begins to rot and the tubers of potatoes are can also be infected if immediate action is not taken. Once late blight is present in a field even the most aggressive conventional fungicides have only a small likelihood of preventing its spread.

Yesterday we mowed the potatoes down to prevent the disease from spreading to the tubers (luckily/ironically most of our potato plants had already been defoliated by the Colorado Potato Beetle, whose prolific presence and horrific appetite this year might suggest they knew the crop was done for before we did.) We hope to have potatoes, though they may be smaller and fewer than we'd like. The tomato crop is another matter. Today we will salvage what undamaged green fruit we can from the plants, then pull them up, load them into trash bags and deposit them at the town dump. Even in this wet year we would have expected to harvest 5000 lbs of tomatoes from those plants from July through the end of September. Instead we will have a few hundred pounds of green tomatoes and say goodbye to the plants we've cared for in the greenhouse since March. The interns, who have spent the last few weeks staking and trellising and mulching these plants, will be the ones to undo all their careful work.

Late blight has never come this early or been this widespread. It has now affected crops from Maine to Ohio. All this cool wet weather has created the perfect conditions for its proliferation. Normally there are only isolated occurrences, mainly among large-scale commercial growers who are better equipped to manage an outbreak. This year's epidemic was accelerated by infected plants sold to home gardeners by garden centers at Wal-mart, Kmart, Lowe's, Home Depot and Sears who all get plants from the same distributor and whose employees are rarely trained to identify the disease. It is unclear whether these plants initiated the late blight outbreak or just helped to spread it. Either way, we're hoping these stores will be better regulated in the future. If you are growing potatoes or tomatoes at home, please educate yourself about the disease and take precautions if walking near our dying tomato plants where spores might cling to your clothing.

Our woes are nothing compared with the most famous outbreak of late blight- the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and 50s. In that instance the poor of Ireland were entirely dependent on potatoes for food and grew little else to feed themselves. That was an extreme example of the perils of an unbalanced food system. Today most American diets are dependent on corn and soy-derived products. If a disease that affected those crops were to come along we might experience something similarly devastating.

At The Food Project's Baker Bridge farm we are in mourning but we will not despair. We are, after all, a diversified vegetable farm and have much to look forward to despite the loss of a favorite crop. Our diversity makes us strong and means we will have plenty to eat this winter even without home-made tomato sauce. Eggplants and peppers, though related to tomatoes and potatoes are not affected by the disease and this week we finally begin to harvest them in earnest. The fall brassicas and roots are loving this weather and after the tomatoes have been pulled we will plant extra broccoli and carrots in their place, looking forward hopefully to the bounty of fall. In the meantime we'll all be hoping for a stretch of warm dry weather.

For more information about blight, check out these two web pages:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/nyregion/18tomatoes.html

http://www.nysipm.cornell.edu/publications/blight/

-- Kate Mrozicki, CSA & Greenhouse Manager

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